The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

some thoughts prompted by Howard Gardner

I spent today at a conference listening to Howard Garder talk about his new book, and explaining his theory of 'The Five Minds'. This was interesting in very many ways, not least because it refocused me on some of the thoughts I had whilst I was in China. Certainly he spoke about his researches into the educational systems (Singapore, Finland) that are so often held up as exemplars for us all due to their results in international standardised tests. He explained what many of us have thought, that these excellent results are in large part explained by the following factors: these are relatively small, relatively homogeneous, relatively wealthy countries. Education is valued by parents, who are engaged and involved. Teachers are well trained, well paid and have a considerable degree of autonomy, with a clear career path. And (perhaps most significantly) there is far less of a disparity between wealth and poverty than the USA (or China). He talked at some length about the effects of the narrower curriculum which can be directly attributed to the standardised testing now so heavily relied upon by politicians and education systems.

He also spoke about the necessity for students to engage with 'disciplines' (science, mathematics, history, the arts to name a few) and to achieve a degree of mastery before they can develop the robust and resilient habits of mind required by creativity or innovation. This is interesting, as one of the things that most intrigued me in visiting the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, was the way in which students trained (drilled, even) in the most academic, rigorous, classical traditions of painting and sculpture could emerge after graduation as the most interesting, cutting edge, thoughtful, innovative and iconoclastic artists.

It occurred to me that there may well be a need to reexamine some of the dearly held paradigms of western art education and reintroduce, or re-emphasise, elements of 'mastery' and the sheer discipline of learning within a discipline such as the arts. Without this, but with the high standards required of examination systems such as the NSW HSC, there is a risk that students are merely imitating works they have seen, or the ideas of artists they have read about, with little real understanding. It may be that somewhere between the two extremes of rigid academicism in China and the 'free' manipulation of materials / artistic conceptual intentions required of NSW students, lies a  path better suited to developing real understanding and authentic knowledge within a field.

First Year Painting student at CAFA, Beijing